Is Anybody There?

British schoolboy Edward (Bill Milner, Son of Rambow) is in a snit. His parents have turned the family house into a nursing home. Doddering old people are everywhere, doing stupid things, slobbering at the dinner table, always talking about ancient history that nobody cares about. He’s had to give up his bedroom to one of the old men. Worse, the man dies there, right in Edward’s bed.

Edward’s only consolation is that he’s become obsessed with the process of dying and what happens afterwards. He puts his tape recorder underneath the bed and records the last moments of the old man’s life in the hopes he can hear what death sounds like. Alas, it’s just like someone breathing shallowly over and over again. Then it’s silent. Edward is keenly disappointed in his investigations. Surely there must be proof of an afterlife and if nothing else, all the old people in his house should be able to provide him some evidence. Meanwhile he’s going to continue being a brat at every opportunity.

Mum (Anne-Marie Duff, Notes on a Scandal) is no help. She loves the old people and thinks Bill should feel lucky to be around them so he can benefit from their wisdom as she had never had a chance to do with her own grandmother. Dad (David Morrissey, The Water Horse) is useless, too. He’s so absorbed in his mid-life crisis and the cute 18-year old girl who works at the home, that he has no time to be a father to Bill.

Bill’s room doesn’t even get cold before another patient moves in. This is Clarence, (Michael Caine, The Dark Knight), who arrives is a vibrantly colored old van. Clarence had spent his life as a traveling magician, plying his trade for decades throughout the provinces, thrilling small-town audiences and charming many a willing lady. Now he’s a lonely old man with nothing to live for. No audience, no family, not even a wife who divorced him long ago and whose funeral he didn’t find out about until it was too late to attend. He and Bill dislike one another immediately.

And then the story–and the magnetic pull of two lonely people–works its lovely magic.

After Clarence tries to kill himself, Bill goes to the hospital to apologize for all the nasty–and hilarious–tricks he’s pulled on everyone in the house. When people die, Clarence angrily insists, they just die. Bill refuses to believe that. He insists that there must be more to life than merely death–especially since he has no proof otherwise. He becomes determined to try to change Clarence’s mind. As a peace offering himself, Clarence uses his powers of illlusion to arrange a séance for Bill. The table moves, the floor pounds, things fly off the shelves. “Is anybody there?” Clarence dramatically demands of the unseen “ghost.” No answer, but Bill is convinced it’s just a matter of time before his proof of the afterlife will appear.

Clarence can see that Bill has the agility in his fingers that are necessary to do good card tricks and he starts teaching the boy, who becomes an apt pupil. Bill convinces Clarence to do a magic show himself at the nursing home. It all goes well, until Clarence, having become more and more forgetful, forgets one tiny bit of the act–and the result is pretty gruesome for one of the other old men. The black humor is truly funny, but Clarence knows the performance has marked the last time anyone will ever look at him and become entranced.

Bill is grieved to notice senility taking over his friend. He tries desperately to forestall what he knows is inevitable. But at last he must accept that no magic trick can turn back time, no matter how shiny the costume or how well-built the prop.

Is Anybody There? is surely one of the loveliest movies of the year. Simple, perhaps predictable, unhurried, alternating seamlessly between humor and tragedy–young British director John Crowley (A Boy) has made a contemporary movie in the way they used to make movies. At age 76, Michael Caine is at the stage of his life when a sensitive role like this one is something to treasure. And treasure it he does, reveling in every fleeting emotion, climbing to the heights of hopefulness, and dashing down through regret to despair–and back up again. Being the consummate pro Caine is, every step of Clarence’s emotional journey is understated, every subtle gesture tells volumes. Adding to the pleasure of Caine’s performance is that of Bill Milner, an astonishingly talented actor, alternately nice, then horrible, naïve, then wordly–just like real kids his age. Seeing these two actors working their magic together is a treat not to be missed.

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